Sheptytsky and the attempt to restore Ukrainian statehood on 30 June 1941

The metropolitan was not adequately informed about the political processes surrounding this plan

[Editor's note: For this year's Winter Reading, we offer two articles by scholar Liliana Hentosh that explore Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky's view on Ukrainian statehood. Tomorrow's article reflects on Ukrainian statehood from the perspective of 1941.]

Eighty years have passed since the Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood. This topic has not lost its relevance, and over the course of many decades, has acquired various interpretations and served as a tool for many a propaganda campaign. Today, therefore, we propose to examine this event through the prism of the thoughts and deeds of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. This retrospective, based on sources and current scholarly research, may be useful today in helping us to understand and evaluate this puzzling event.

German military units entered Lviv early in the morning of 30 June 1941. The Brandenburg-800 Special Forces Unit included the Nachtigall [Nightingale] Battalion, consisting of recruited Ukrainians. The commanders and soldiers of this battalion shared the views and political line of the OUN(B) [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists — Bandera faction] and had plans that were known to their German leadership. After the battalion entered the city, it turned off Horodotska Street in the direction of St. George's Terrace, where it pitched a temporary camp on the square opposite the [Ukrainian] Greek Catholic cathedral. The local OUN(B) leadership, headed by Ivan Klymiv (Lehenda) and active members of the organization, had already gathered there. The battalion's Ukrainian commanders — Yurii Shukhevych, Yurii Lopatynsky, and the chaplain, Rev. Ivan Hrynokh — went to a meeting with Metropolitan Sheptytsky.

After the event itself, the metropolitan never refuted his support in the matter of the Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood, because he considered it his duty as pastor to support the aspirations of his flock to build an independent state.

The exact substance of their conversation is not known, but it is highly likely that they informed the metropolitan about the plan to proclaim the restoration of Ukrainian statehood and asked him to support the Proclamation. Some time after noon, another important political figure in the OUN(B), Yaroslav Stetsko, arrived in Lviv. He immediately made his way to the metropolitan's residence, and Rev. Hrynokh brought him to his office. From Stetsko's memoirs, we learn that he informed the metropolitan in detail about the intention to proclaim the restoration of Ukrainian statehood that very day. In his memoirs, Stetsko writes that he informed the metropolitan about the lack of coordination with the representatives of the German government. According to the majority of memoirs, the metropolitan expressed support for the Proclamation and sent his representative, Bishop Yosyp Slipyj, to a meeting of the National Council scheduled for that very evening. His assent and support, expressed in his conversations with Shukhevych, Stetsko, and Hrynokh, appears in various memoirs as well as in semi-popular and scholarly literature, as the metropolitan's "blessing" of the Proclamation.

After the event itself, the metropolitan never refuted his support in the matter of the Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood, because he considered it his duty as pastor to support the aspirations of his flock to build an independent state. Later, the metropolitan was reproached for his support of the Proclamation, which was planned and executed by a single political force: the OUN faction under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. No sources have revealed the exact answer to the question of whether the metropolitan was aware that the Proclamation was being implemented by a single political force, the OUN(B), and that the German government had no intentions of throwing its support behind the Ukrainians' pro-independence projects and that it viewed Ukrainians as an inferior nation.

The Soviet system of surveillance and repressive measures contributed to Sheptytsky’s isolation from outside information, especially from beyond the borders of the USSR.

Given the information vacuum, the situation was changing quite rapidly and unexpectedly. During the interwar period, the metropolitan had criticized the methods and ideology of the OUN. In certain aspects, there was more common ground between Sheptytsky and Andrii Melnyk and his fellow thinkers [A rival faction in the OUN — Ed.]. In 1939–1940 Melnyk and his associates helped the metropolitan deliver his letters to the Vatican. To this day, the extent to which Sheptytsky was informed about the split in the OUN and especially about the exacerbation of relations between the leaders of the two factions has not been established. Subsequently, various sources accused Rev. Hrynokh and Stetsko of misleading Sheptytsky about such important issues as the split in the OUN, the attitude of other political groups and parties toward the Proclamation, and the positions of the German government and army command. It is entirely conceivable that the information which the metropolitan received on the morning of 30 June from the OUN figures was only partially true or skillfully prepared information. At the time, the metropolitan felt quite strongly about how much his activities were restricted by his physical ailments. He was not walking at all, was barely able to write, and he was increasingly reliant on his servant, assistants, secretaries, and often those individuals who brought him information that could not always be verified immediately.

The Soviet system of surveillance and repressive measures contributed to Sheptytsky's isolation from outside information, especially from beyond the borders of the USSR. Therefore, the presentation of the plan by trusted individuals (above all, the Greek Catholic priest Rev. Hrynokh), the presence of Ukrainian military men (despite their German uniforms), Ukrainian symbols, and a joyful group of people standing on the square opposite his windows — all this led to the formation of a favorable attitude to the plan to proclaim Ukrainian statehood. Moreover, Sheptytsky regarded this historic prospect as highly desirable for Ukrainians. During the national assembly in the Prosvita building, the metropolitan's representative Bishop Slipyj delivered a speech "On National Honor and National Dignity" and conveyed Metropolitan Sheptytsky's blessing. His speech was followed by the Proclamation.

Meanwhile, at approximately 7:20 p.m., some German guests arrived at the metropolitan's residence: Professor Hans Koch, who was a captain in the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and Major Ernst von zu Eikern. They had just arrived in Lviv and decided to visit Metropolitan Sheptytsky without delay. The metropolitan had been long acquainted with Professor Koch, who was a theologian interested in Eastern Christianity. Almost at the beginning of the conversation, the metropolitan told them about the national assembly that should have already started at the Prosvita building. The metropolitan's German guests rushed over there — this information was a surprise to them, despite the fact that the Nachtigall Battalion and, in fact, Yaroslav Stetsko, were subordinated to the Abwehr. Arriving at the solemn gathering, Professor Koch declared that there was no concord with the German government about the Proclamation and warned those present of the serious negative repercussions of this act. Through a local radio station, the Ukrainians had managed to broadcast information twice about the restoration of Ukrainian statehood: on the evening of 30 June and in the morning on 1 July. Both broadcasts mentioned Metropolitan Sheptytsky's support and blessing of their actions.

On the morning of 1 July 1941, Sheptytsky had another meeting with a person whom he respected and considered a friend since 1935, and whose advice he sought during the Soviet occupation on how to counteract the advance of atheism. This was Rabbi Ezekiel Lewin, who headed the Reform Judaism community in Lviv.

The following morning, that is, on 1 July, Yaroslav Stetsko and Rev. Ivan Hrynokh paid another visit to the metropolitan. The day before, the Ukrainian leaders had asked the metropolitan to issue a pastoral letter to the public. By the morning of 1 July, the metropolitan was already aware from various sources of the German authorities' negative position on the Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood, first, from Hans Koch, who, together with his associates, was lodged in buildings attached to St. George's. The metropolitan had also been apprised of the course of the national assembly from Bishop Slipyj and, later, from Stetsko himself. Nevertheless, Sheptytsky decided to write and publicize his pastoral letter, which unambiguously supported the Proclamation of Ukrainian statehood as a great and important step. He dictated the text to his secretary, Rev. Volodymyr Hrytsai. On this manuscript drawn up by Hrytsai, the metropolitan made corrections and wrote the following words in pencil in a wobbly but readable fashion: "Issued in Lviv, in the archiepiscopal Church of St. George's on 1 July 1941" and the signature "An." Rev. Hrynokh took the Proclamation and ran to the radio station in order to broadcast it at 10:00 a.m. The Proclamation was printed on thick, bright pink paper and distributed throughout the city.

On the morning of 1 July 1941, Sheptytsky had another meeting with a person whom he respected and considered a friend since 1935, and whose advice he sought during the Soviet occupation on how to counteract the advance of atheism. This was Rabbi Ezekiel Lewin, who headed the Reform Judaism community in Lviv. The rabbi told the metropolitan about the horrific pogroms in the city, taking place mainly in the Lonsky, Zamarstyniv, and Brygidky prisons. The trigger of the pogroms was the discovery of the mass executions of prisoners, which had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD. Nazi propaganda actively disseminated and enforced the theory equating the Jews with Bolshevism and the so-called "Judeo-Bolshevik commune."

Led by German soldiers, local Ukrainians — the urban lumpenproletariat — as well as volunteers from militia-type units formed by the OUN(B) also took part in the pogroms, as did some individual soldiers from the Nachtigall Battalion. The latter were acting on the orders of the German command, sometimes serving as interpreters. This information had to have made a disheartening impression on the metropolitan. At that very time, there was another rabbi staying in his residence: Rabbi Lilienfeld from Pidhaitsi, a friend of the Sheptytsky family. The metropolitan invited Rabbi Lewin to remain in his chambers for some time. He refused, however, because he could not abandon his people. But he asked the metropolitan to take care of his family, his sons, in case of need. That same day Rabbi Lewin was killed in Brygidky in front of his son, Kurt. According to Kurt's recollections, among the pogromist killers were boys wearing blue-and-yellow armbands. The metropolitan managed to promise the rabbi to dispatch his trusted priests to the city streets in order to restrain the pogromist actions of the mob. Kurt Lewin, whom the metropolitan saved, believed that Sheptytsky completed the text of his pastoral letter after meeting with his father. We do not know if this is the case.

The first words of the metropolitan's pastoral letter are these: "By the will of Almighty God […] a new epoch in the life of Sovereign, United, Independent Ukraine has begun." The pastoral letter contains only one mention of the new military and political force: "We welcome the victorious German army as a liberator from the enemy." The metropolitan definitely viewed the Bolsheviks as the enemy, and not just in the ideological sense. A few days before 1 July, all the priests who were in the metropolitan's chambers at the time, with the exception of the metropolitan himself, were made to stand against the wall of St. George's chambers, lined up by Soviet NKVD personnel in expectation of possible execution.

Corrections were made to the manuscript draft of the pastoral letter dated 1 July 1941, as well as to the typewritten draft. The phrase "the civilian government established by the leader of the German people" was crossed out and replaced by "We give the appropriate obedience to the established authorities." In it, the metropolitan quite clearly outlined the demands expected of the future Ukrainian state authorities. These criteria included both moral and ethical principles and legal ones, inasmuch as they confirmed the postulate of equality for all citizens of the Ukrainian state. Therefore, the metropolitan wrote: "Of the government called to live by it, we expect a wise, just guide and directives that would take into account the needs and well-being of all citizens living in our land, regardless of the religion, nationality, and social stratum to which they belong."  These words of Sheptytsky's were, in fact, the most important, key ones in this pastoral letter, especially given the realities of that period.

The words of welcome addressed to the German army may elicit a negative reaction in some people and taken as proof of Sheptytsky's favorable attitude to the Third Reich. However, the text of the pastoral letter dated 1 July 1941 indicates on the whole that the metropolitan was governed by the Catholic Church's traditional views of cooperation with secular authorities. In keeping with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, God is the source of the legitimacy of state power. However, even during the interwar years, Sheptytsky had often expressed the idea that the Church recognizes state power even when it is in sinful hands, but the Church may invalidate the laws and orders of the authorities if they go against Christian ethics and the concept of justice.

We do not know exactly what guided the metropolitan when he was dictating this pastoral letter. Perhaps in his eyes, this was a unique declaration of intent, the expression of support for the idea of Ukrainian independence and unity, to which he devoted later, in December 1941, a lengthy, detailed pastoral letter entitled "The Ideal of Our National Life Is Our Native All-National Fatherland-Home." Here Sheptytsky writes, among other things, about the democratic form of the state system, and his thoughts on this question may be summarized thus: Democracy has its shortcomings, but it is the most just form of implementing a state's power.

Sheptytsky's pastoral letter contains a very important message that appears in the final sentences, which talks about equal rights and opportunities for all citizens of the newly proclaimed Ukrainian state. These words of Sheptytsky's fly in the face of the agitation materials that were being disseminated in the city and the land. For example, the words in the OUN(B) leadership's message about the construction of "Ukraine for Ukrainians" or the appeal of the OUN(B) leadership dated 1 July 1941 containing the following words: "People, know this! Moscow, Poland, the Hungarians, the Jews are your enemies! Destroy them!" Sheptytsky's words about equal rights and the duties of the government to provide them, regardless of nationality and religion, also challenged the racial legislative acts that were adopted in Germany during this period. Moreover, Sheptytsky's pastoral letter states that the construction of a Ukrainian state should take place on the foundation of Christian principles, and only "with God's mercy will it be brought to a successful conclusion." In other words, according to Sheptytsky, actions that contravene the Christian commandments will divest the necessary grace of God and will not foster the building of Ukrainian statehood.

Based on the foregoing, one can formulate several conclusions concerning Metropolitan Sheptytsky's actions with regard to the Proclamation of Ukrainian Statehood of 30 June 1941. The metropolitan was not adequately informed about the political processes surrounding this plan. He was also not aware of the degree of disparity of Ukrainian political forces outside the borders of the USSR. The metropolitan did not know about the Third Reich's intentions regarding Ukraine and about its racial policy. Sheptytsky's experience under Soviet rule was an extremely negative experience, and he viewed the entry of German troops in Lviv as liberation from the Bolsheviks — from the "enemy." In the first days of July 1941, not just Ukrainian nationalists but also the German military administration sought the support of Metropolitan Sheptytsky. The pastoral letter of 1 July 1941 was certainly dictated by the metropolitan and signed by him. The letter itself cannot be regarded as support for the OUN(B) 's plans but, rather, as a manifestation of the metropolitan's desires and expectations to see the birth of a Ukrainian state that would come together on the basis of Christian moral and ethical principles and respect for the equal rights of all its citizens. It may be said that in the dramatic and tragic days of 1941, the metropolitan, as a pastor, painted his own picture of the ideal state: ethical and equal.

Liliana Hentosh
Liliana Hentosh is a Candidate of Historical Sciences and Senior Research Fellow at the Ivan Franko Lviv National University's Institute of Historical Research. She is a leading scholar on the life and work of Andrei Sheptytsky, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.